Jesse Helms back on the offensive in North Carolina race

It has taken a staggering $6 million, countless television spots, and pelting the Democrats on a daily basis. But one-time underdog Jesse Helms, the senator who is loved and hated the country over, has put his challenger on the defensive.

Seven months before election day in this second-most-watched battle of 1984, the race between Republican New Right leader Helms and the moderate symbol of the New South, Gov. James B. Hunt Jr., is already in full mudslinging array. And most of the mud is headed for the governor.

At Hunt headquarters on a recent day, workers huddled in a tiny, windowless room near the state capitol to discuss how to react to the crisis of the day, the latest Helms offensive. It is an advertisement in a Winston-Salem newspaper linking the governor to labor unions.

In North Carolina, the least unionized of the states, being labeled as pro-union is only slightly preferable to being called pro-socialist. And Hunt campaign chairman Joseph W. Grimsley shakes his head wearily over the Helms charge. Governor Hunt is hardly labor's darling, Mr. Grimsley maintains, adding that ''Jim Hunt supports a right-to-work law'' that inhibits unionizing.

But no matter. Unions would far rather see Democrat Hunt than the far-righter Helms in Congress, and that preference is grounds enough for Helms, whose ads depict Hunt as labor's ploy.

With the refrain of ''Look for the Union Label'' playing in the background, a television spot for Helms lists the names of the big-labor groups. A voice informs the public that ''all these unions'' support Walter Mondale for president - and Hunt for senator.

''You may not know where Jim Hunt stands, but you know who he stands with,'' the announcer says.

The television ad is one of many aired since the North Carolina airwaves war began last year. Helms has by far the most air time, thanks to his lucrative campaign fund, replenished continually by his direct-mail solicitation.

Although the Hunt campaign has raised an impressive $3.5 million, the Democrat cannot count on the steady flow ensured by the Helms money-raising machine. So the challenger is thriftily guarding his campaign chest, spending about $1 for every $6 spent by Helms.

In the meantime, Hunt has watched his once 20-point lead in the polls disappear in the Helms ad blitz. The race is now registering a dead heat in the polls.

''We just sit here and take the lumps,'' says Grimsley, explaining his strategy on saving campaign funds. ''We're not spending it. We're going to wait until we see the whites of their eyes.''

So while Hunt campaign operatives work until late in the evenings trying to respond, they stand by while daily radio and TV ads attack their candidate. Helms press secretary Claude Allen explains that he and fellow workers comb through the Hunt record, submitting ideas to their advertising consultants, who turn them into the slick Helms ads.

While the Hunt campaign watches its pennies, over at Helms headquarters a worker quietly tests the next weapon in the Helms arsenal - a computerized telephone survey asking voter preferences while skillfully inserting a suggestion that Hunt may favor raising taxes.

The chief theme of the Helms attacks are that the governor is liberal, even ultraliberal, and that he is tied to Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts and black leaders such as the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson. Photographs showing such leaders with Hunt become grist for the Helms campaign mill. But skillful advertising is unlikely to make the far-left image stick to the popular Hunt, who has long been known to North Carolinians as a moderate.

What does seem to stick is the image that the governor is wishy-washy.

In the Helms view, political issues fall neatly into black-and-white, right-or-wrong categories. Hunt, the moderate, sees more gray areas. And that is the soft spot Helms exploits. His ads constantly raise the question, ''Where does Jim Hunt stand?'' while depicting Helms as a fighter who never compromises his principles.

Some of Helms's fights against abortion, for organized school prayer, and against a national holiday for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. have had mixed reviews in North Carolina, which is a more moderate state than its New Right Senate representation suggests. ''I feel like if he'd forget school prayer and abortion , he'd be a lot better senator,'' says S. Robert Watson Jr., a retired electrical engineer in Raleigh. But Mr. Watson supports Helms and chides Hunt for being ''all air'' and ''talking out of both sides of his mouth.''

''I don't agree with (Helms) all the time, but I think he has had a desirable influence on Congress,'' says Roger F. Eller, a construction company executive and president of the Raleigh Civitan Club, who adds he is undecided in the race.

Another Helms backer proclaims, ''I believe he's going to do what he believes ,'' and adds, ''It may not be the right thing.''

That view is exactly the message the Helms campaign is trying to deliver. ''His whole point is that 'it doesn't matter what I do. You may not agree with me. The important thing is I make a big splash,' '' says Hunt's campaign communications director, Stephanie Bass.

She adds that the ads give the incumbent a smoke screen to hide his record of voting against the bipartisan plan to save social security, against funding for education and school lunches, and in favor of tax cuts benefiting the rich more than the lower-income groups.

But so far such charges have been lost in the daily blasts against Hunt on issues ranging from his stand on school prayer to his use of the state airplane for campaigning and allegations that he made an agreement to allow Virginia Beach to drain water from a North Carolina lake. The Hunt campaign has rejoinders, but for now it has spent much valuable time and money in defensive action.

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